19 September 2006

Going Mobile

I was strictly a pedestrian for my first few days in Oulu, but then an angel named Maija lent me a bike, which I have learned to love. Part of its charm is that it’s old and a little dinged up. I’ll be unhappy if it gets stolen, but I won’t be heartbroken, because Maija insists she could get by without it. Anyway, I use the lock faithfully, and so far, so good.

Oulu, like almost all of Finland, is flat, which makes for good biking, at least through most of the year. Finns are famous for being willing to endure almost any kind of hardship to be close to nature. I’m told that there are plenty of people who bike all winter long.

What I can say based on my own observation is that people really want to be outside. I can see it all play out from my apartment house at the end of the footbridge that connects my neighborhood, Tuira, to the town center through a series of islands criss-crossed with bicycle and trekking paths and gardens—and even a salmon ladder. (I’m told that this area was designed by Alvar Aalto, the Finnish Frank Lloyd Wright, but I haven’t had a chance to check that out.) All day, and even long after dark, people stream across that bridge—both sexes, all ages, all sizes.

The most serious, of course, are the runners and joggers, and there are many accomplished bikers, in addition to those, such as myself, who just wobble and wheeze. Then there are the people on scooters and rollerblades. Of the pedestrians, the most dedicated appear to be those engaged in something called Nordic walking, which involves ski poles and staring straight ahead, no talking allowed. It’s a little hard to tell exactly what the poles contribute, maybe just better balance—gravitas. Then there are the seniors in wheelchairs, or on scooters or walkers. I saw one old fellow on a scooter that must have been inspired by a catamaran; it was four-wheeled and it had two hulls, if you know what I mean. An alarming number of these folks are either attached to iPods or other audio devices, or they are chattering away on the ubiquitous Nokia cell phone, or kännykä, a word so new it does not appear in my sanakirja (sana+kirja, literally, wordbook).

The rollerbladers with ski poles don’t have a free hand for the kännykä, though I did see one with a headset once. They generate an amazing amount of power with their gait alone, and then they get added propulsion from the poles. I can hear these cocks of the walk coming up behind me on my rickety bike, and it’s a little intimidating. They take up a lot of room, but I really respect the fact that they don’t wear a lot of body armor. If they bowl you over, they—unlike, say, the driver of an eighteen-wheeler on the Capital Beltway—are likely to do as much damage to themselves as they do to you.

And that’s the point of this sermonette. Maybe it’s true that the Finns are more at home in the woods than the rest of us. And maybe they feel squeezed in their smallish homes. But maybe it’s also the case that somebody—some planner, I freely acknowledge—had a brilliant idea when he or she decided that bikers and pedestrians should travel together on a wide sidewalk, instead of out in the street with the motorcars. In the twentieth century, bike-paths were a kind of laughable cliché in places like Radburn and Greenbelt and Reston, but that was because they could only be used for getting around Radburn or Greenbelt or Reston. Try pedaling into city center, the keskusta, and you were in deep doo-doo. Here, you can go anywhere on the street grid with your bicycle. In the town center, where there are lots of people, there are also lots of cobblestones to slow you down, and lots of bike racks, for when you need to park it for awhile. There must be some reason why the same man who loves biking in Finland never takes his bike out of the shed back in the U.S. of A. The answer, my friends, is capacious sidewalks.

Thus endeth today’s rant. When I am not mentally redesigning the streets of Alexandria to accommodate bicycles (and trams), I am customizing my Finnish bicycle to show those rollerblader dudes a thing or two. I aspire to “play the tape machine, make the toast and tea, when I’m mobile.”